Cuba Libre: Capitalism, Communism, and the Worker
Issue #66, February 2004
"If you have contact with tourists or have family in the States, life can be pretty good here," Juan Carlos explained to me on the cab ride from Havana La Vieja to José Marti International. Clearly, the beneficiary of a dollar supplemented income — bedecked in gold chains and with a Nokia plugged into the dash — Juan Carlos didn't mind too much Cuba's two-tier economic system. In fact, it seemed to downright please him — a big contrast from most others I'd met on my trip. A small minority of Cubans like Juan Carlos — who have family in the States, rub up against tourists, and/or work within Castro's bureaucracy — benefit from the embargo. Meanwhile, a great majority suffer.
U.S. "democratic" and Cuban "communist" political and economic policies have deeply divided the dollar-Haves from the dollar-Have Nots. The U.S. economic embargo allows enough dollars to pass into a few chosen pockets and to fatten Castro's bureaucratic cow — $800 million a year, officially, generated through a skyrocketing drug trade and a booming tourist and sex industry. Spanish, Italian, German, Canadian, and U.S. Americans arrive with wallets bulging to play fandango with their exotic ethnic-object specimens, while cocaine stops over on its way from Bolivia and Colombia to the U.S. The net effect: the U.S. and Cuba have worked together to systematically destroy the rights gained by the great worker revolts of 1958. In the name of "democracy" and "communism" there has been a systematic undermining of the workers' hard-won fight to establish laws that guarantee to all: equal access to education, medicine, modes of communication, and representation and organization independent from the state. While grand ideologues throw punches, it is the Cuban working man and woman whose rights are rotting away.
U.S. newscasters and journalists raised eyebrows when Fidel Castro appeared sans green fatigues to greet Jimmy Carter at José Marti International on May 20th, 2002. Many conjectured that Castro's dark blue suit was more than a shift in sartorial taste, but rather a symbolic gesture in support of building U.S. and Cuban diplomatic relations; it was a sign that communism had failed and that Castro was willing to throw in his chips with the imperialists up north. Castro certainly trimmed a good figure in his new outfit, but in actuality, he's been donning this same suit more than symbolically ever since he cut a deal with the Kremlin's Communist Party back in '59 when he first took power.
Eager to fill the void left when the workers forced Fulgencio Batista to flee Cuba with his cargo load of bullion, this liberal bourgeois adventurer, who had never worked a day with trade unions nor with workers, turned to the Soviets for guidance. Neither the U.S. nor the Soviet Republic realized how deep and intense the hatred against the Batista dictatorship was in Cuba; nor did they realize how much the spontaneous activity of the workers could be to overwhelm the barriers set by the Communist Party and the official trade unions controlled by Batista. By the time Castro and his small cadre of Mexican-trained soldiers arrived on Cuba's shores, the Cuban workers had already paralyzed the nation after successfully maintaining a general strike in December 1958 that forced Batista out and drove U.S. imperialists back home. Though the Communist Party (Stalin's mafia-groomed scion) had turned a blind eye to the workers revolt in Cuba and to its guerrilla warriors (including Castro, who led the original July 26th insurrection in 1953), it opened its arms wide for an older, less revolutionary-inclined Castro. The Kremlin determined that Castro was a figure uninterested in the workers' plight and struggle, so they agreed to put him at the helm. This way, the Kremlin could intervene, control, and squash the workers revolution as they had in other parts of the world.
The 1959 revolution had become known as the "26th Insurrection", to pay homage to the 1953 attempted insurgency, and its attack on Batista's Moncada military barracks. Quickly, "26th Insurrection" and Communist Party merged, as Soviet and Cuban hands clasped. The ramifications were soon apparent: politically strong leaders of the Cuban workers disappeared, and Castro began to systematically divest the workers of their rights to representation and organization. Castro knew that he was dealing with hundreds of thousands of people; he knew that the best strategy for controlling the workers would not be to stop the flow of the revolution, but to gain control over the direction of its flow. After all, the workers had already taken over the land and demanded the rights of equal access to education and medicine, so Castro chose not to stop the flow but to begin strategically — and under the subordination of the Communist Party — to channel its direction toward a dead end.
One of the first things Castro did to try and stop this independent worker's movement was to forbid the existence of plural representations of workers: there would be only one organization, the Kremlin-controlled Communist Party. Any hope for a worker's party, such as what might have become of the "26th Insurrection", was destroyed. Castro also swiftly placed the employer organizations under the control of the Communist Party, reproducing exactly the same bureaucratic structure set up in the Soviet Union. And, he cooperated with the U.S. move to isolate Cuba, leading to the slow suffocation of the Cuban worker's movement, by cutting off their means of communicating and building bonds of solidarity with other workers around the world.
In the name of communism, Castro began to slowly asphyxiate the workers and their rights: equal access to education, medical care, and means of communication. Castro transformed his own government into a mafia-styled and operated bureaucracy that systematically corrupted labor leaders. Castro's bureaucracy deliberately tied up in thick red tape funding for education and resources for medical care, which made life for the people very difficult. This, of course, continues today. After all, what's the point of having a policy of universal access to education and medical care, when it lacks sufficient resources and monetary support to be effective?
At the same time that Castro has been systematically suffocating the worker, he has turned a blind eye to the billions of dollars a year that enter the country via tourism, drug trafficking, and under-the-table pay-offs that feed a bureaucracy not so unlike that of the Soviet Union and Eastern European bloc, where an old nomenclatura was turned into a mafia that controlled all aspects of the people's everyday life. (Manifestations of Castro's mafia-styled bureaucracy surface occasionally in the media — for example, several years ago, when head Cuban officials, like the chief of police, were caught with their arms elbow deep in cocaine as they helped traffic it into the U.S.)
Castro — as the political appendage acting out the will of the Kremlin — wanted not only to control the direction of flow of the worker party's movement and organization in Cuba, but also to control the spread of the revolution into other Latin American countries. The Cuban revolution's huge momentum had gained tremendous popular support all over Latin America — and the rest of the world. The Kremlin's fool-proof military muscle to divide, isolate, and oppress was needed to stop it from spreading everywhere else.
In Cuba, the Soviets displayed their military might by installing missiles; this led to the October 1962 crisis, those fateful days when Kennedy and Khrushchev put the future of mankind in peril by playing Russian roulette with their respective nuclear forces. In the rest of Latin America, the Soviets enacted foreign policies whereby they supported (via Castro) oppressive government regimes in Latin America and around the world by systematically suppressing and sabotaging any revolutionary uprisings. (After serving as minister of industry till 1965, the asthmatic Argentinean physician, Che Guevara, caught a whiff of wrong doing but continued to think that the Soviet Communist Party was indispensable. He took the opportunity to seek adventure in the African Congo where the Soviet Communist Party needed him to lead their mercenaries. Afterwards, with an even stronger stink of the Party's corruption — Guevara had not made friends with then-Soviet Prime Minister Alexei Kosygin, who disliked Guevara because of his greater popularity with the Chinese and friendship with Mao — he went to fight for the workers in Bolivia in 1966. In Bolivia, Guevara found absolutely no Soviet support and was eventually murdered by a CIA-trained Bolivian army in October, 1967.)
Castro applauded, for example, the Soviet Union's invasion of Czechoslovakia on August 20, 1968, which led to the oppressive rule by the Soviet Alexander Dubcek. And in Mexico little over a month later, Castro gave his support to the PRI government's effort to squash protests just before the Olympic Games were to take place in Mexico City. In what has become known as the "Tlatelolco Massacre" of October 2, 1968, over 2,000 soldiers sealed off the exits from Mexico City's Plaza de las Tres Culturas and opened fire on students and workers protesting a repressive government; they killed hundreds. It is now known that the official Olympic Battalion, dressed in civilian clothing, acted as agent provocateurs: wearing white gloves so the official army could distinguish them, they fired from roof tops to "ignite" what became a slaughter; these same provocateurs turned their guns on the protesters and became human blockades to seal off, trap and massacre students and workers in the plaza.
In the name of communism, Castro supported then-President Diaz Ordaz and his PRI government's violent repression of Mexican students' and workers' demand for democratic reforms in education (including autonomy for the nation's universities), social justice (including the freeing of political prisoners), and the right to establish an organization that would represent their needs independent of the corrupt PRI. So while Mexicans had supported Castro's invasion of Cuba in 1959 — tens of thousands of people gathered in Mexico City's Zocalo to show their support, and hundreds of workers, peasants, and students lined up in cities in the Gulf States to donate blood for the Cuban revolutionaries — Castro gave them more than a cold shoulder; he actively supported their violent censure and erasure.
Castro also supported Diaz Ordaz's successor, President Luis Echeverria, who had been Minister of Government under Ordaz's reign and who exercised authority over security forces during the 1968 Tlatelolco Massacre. On June 10, 1971, Castro backed Echeverria when he gave orders to his elite police unit, the Halcones (or "Falcons"), to attack with guns, clubs, and tear gas students and workers protesting against the government. Again, many who had believed in their duty to make revolution and support Castro in 1959 became victims of a repressive Mexican government supported by Castro — just one example of how Castro used the name of communism to contain all revolutionary movements, since the fateful subordination of the Cuban revolution to the Kremlin's bureaucracy.
Castro comporting himself like a CEO to meet Carter in May of 2002 says much of the Communist Party's interest in guaranteeing profits at the expense of the worker. Likewise, Carter's "Friendship Force" speech says much about the U.S.'s lack of interest in building economic and political bridges that might lead to a true democracy — to ensure the democratic rights of all on both sides of the dividing body of water. Many liberals heralded Carter's visit as a breakthrough in U.S. diplomatic relations with Cuba. Newsday reporter Adrian Peracchio remarked of Carter's Spanish-spoken speech that it was "strong, spicy stuff" that proved "Carter was no wimp, denouncing the sclerotic Castro regime's oppression of its people as passionately as he condemned the absurdity of continuing the useless 40 year U.S. travel and trade embargo on Cuba." Cuba not only proved a good whipping post for a U.S. dominatrix (in so many words), its economic embargo has long proved ineffective and directly responsible for keeping Castro in power. In defense of the universal spirit of capitalism, Carter championed Cuban entrepreneurs he'd brushed up against while visiting "the people" in Havana's markets; in the name of democracy he demanded that Cubans enjoy the same privileges of entrepreneurship as Westerners. The net effect: Carter's visit was less about making visible the plight of the Cuban working class and more about promoting capitalism in the name of democracy.
Carter's visit to Cuba proved one thing: the U.S. government could care less about the building of truly independent worker's organization; it could care less about helping to institute reforms that would build on and improve basic democratic rights, in the socialist sense of the word-rights to an education, medical care, and communication and transportation infrastructure. In the name of democracy, Carter — and others, from Arizona congressman Jeff Flake to George Bush — seek to undermine and even destroy these democratic rights. In the name of democracy, Carter et al. want to destroy democracy. If France, Spain, Canada, and Italy are in Cuba making money developing hotels, that means the U.S. is being cut out of the pie. Carter's "Friendship Force" is not so unlike JFK's "Alliance for Progress" and "Peace Corps", which ended up serving the interests of U.S. capitalists whose profiteering meant the suppression of worker revolts.
While Carter has the interests of the bourgeoisie in mind, the Bush administration has in mind the interest of isolating the Cuban workers from other workers. When U.S. Undersecretary of State John Bolton announced that Cuba had a "limited offensive biological warfare research and development effort" and that it traded biological weapons of "mass destruction" with "rogue states", the administration did more than revitalize a cold-war rhetoric. Replaying what we had already heard during the Cuban missile crisis — when the Kennedy administration used this rhetoric as a last ditch effort to save its failed mission to roll back the Cuban revolution and to stop it from spreading to other countries — Bolton updated this rhetoric for a post 9-11 fight against ever-expanding axes of evil.
In other words, the various U.S. governments-controlled, alas, by the capitalist class — discovered that though they would not be able to curtail the revolution, they would be able to enact certain foreign policies, such as the embargo, to isolate the workers from others, make their lives miserable, and corrupt with dollars its intellectual, political, and union leaders. As such, when Bush identified Castro as the "brutal dictator" who had "hijacked" democracy at a $25,000-a-dinner-plate Republican fund raiser, he not only pandered to a conservative Miami Cuban capitalist elite but made visible the true stakes of the embargo debate. Systematic isolation of the Cuban worker from the U.S. is much better for capitalists in the long run than their potential to make profits by lifting the embargo. After all, Cuba is a very small developing nation that has never been nor will it ever be vital to the building of a U.S. capitalist economy. As we saw with the Soviet's post-1958 interest in Cuba, it is in the interest of the bourgeoisie in the U.S. to isolate the Cuban workers from the rest of the world and to divest the workers from their hard-won rights. In the name of democracy and communism, then, Cubans are denied the resources necessary for medical care and education to mean something.
Before Carter's visit, Vladimiro Roca had just been released from jail (sentenced to five years for writing against Castro) and had collected 11,000 signatures to petition the National Assembly for greater freedom of expression, a referendum on human rights, amnesty for political prisoners, electoral reform, and right to privatize (identified as "Project Varela"). Like Carter, Roca believes that the U.S. and Cuba should work together to lift the embargo because, as he announced, "Capitalism is inevitable". Like Carter, Roca conflated capitalism with democracy. His list of demands contain the elements central to the establishing and founding of a democratic state — a state, however, based on a capitalist agenda. Namely, while the U.S. government today claims to be a democracy, in actuality it does everything in its power to undermine and destroy the people's democratic rights. Democracy today is spelled out by the corruption that corrodes the U.S. from the inside out. Insider trading, CEO salaries and bonuses, and cooking account books at Enron and Worldcom are a case in point. What people claim to be a democracy in the U.S. is actually a system that generates by its own functioning a gigantic, parasitic monster, especially manifest in the epidemic spread of drug use throughout the U.S. that has generated billions of dollars and that spreads corruption throughout the state itself — police departments, DEA, FBI — as well as between the big banks and mafia contractors that launder money.
Whether it's a U.S. stars and stripes or a Cuban white star/red-Masonic triangle waving high in the air, when all is said and done both function as ideological vessels emptied of meaning. Both transform social democracy-formed through and by a material reality, and that ensures the basic rights and representation of the nation's differently classed people-into a grand spectacle. The spectacle makes meaningless the basic tenets of democracy: the recognition of the existence of different classes in society, and the need of these classes, with different and opposed interests, to be represented at the most general level (social, political, economic) by their own organizations.
As such, a democracy should ensure the total freedom of members to associate with different classes in political parties and economic organizations, such as employers associations and workers trade unions. Simply put, this breaks down into the following: the working class want to be exploited less and the bourgeoisie wants to exploit more. However, this is not a struggle between a couple of people, but between tens of millions of people, so these different classes need to be able to create organizations to represent them: trade unions (national and international) for the workers and employers associations (chambers of commerce, the world economic forum, international employer's association) for the bourgeoisie. Each should have the right to elect parties to wage their struggles at a level beyond that of a specific factory and at a more general level, that is, at the political level. From this recognition of the existence of different classes and of the different (often antagonistic) interests in society, democracy should demand that there be a total separation between all forms of organized belief (the church) and the state. Democracy demands that the state be a secular state.
This democratic state makes itself present tangibly in the everyday lives of the people: the right of all citizens to equal access to education, medical care, common transportation, and communication — all of which can't be subordinated to any church or religious thinking. (Of course, the U.S. has this separation etched into its constitution, but because of the corrosive effects of capitalism, the state has bent more and more to the pressures of the Protestant church.) So, whether you're born a Rockerfeller or a Chávez, you should have the same access to a universally standard education and be able to travel in the same carriage on the same train for the same price, say, from San Francisco to New York.
As a public service, these trains and other modes of transport (trucks and buses, say), should be able to move freely across the U.S. without any state borders or duties. Chávez and Rockefeller should have the same rights to a national mail service; the democratic state should allow all of its citizens — whether living in, say, California's poorer dust belt region or glitzy Beverly Hills — to communicate with one another. All its citizens should have the same access to gas and electricity. And, of course, freedom of speech and of association are an essential part of democracy. Each citizen should have the total right to free speech and the right to communicate and associate with whomever one wants.
In the name of communism or democracy, Cuba and the U.S. (and all nations in the world) have destroyed one by one these material manifestations of democracy. When access to education or the process of communication becomes imbalanced as it has — the working class Chicano in Modesto vs. the bourgeois Anglo in Beverly Hills — then democracy ends. When those laws that should apply to everyone equally in a democratic state (and that can be changed by the people if so desired) begin to affect populations differently, then this, too, marks the end of a democratic state. The U.S. has moved to privatize and Cuba has kept back monetary support and resources in all these services, both diminishing if not destroying democracy entirely. Finally, when the infrastructure that supports a democracy is pulled down and burned, what we begin to see rise up from the ashes is fascism.
Mussolini and Hitler, for example, first banned trade unions and created in their place official trade unions completely under the state bureaucracy's control. This system prevented the recognition of different classes and their interests as well as prevented the representation of these classes by organizations independent of the state. Of course, the instant a trade union is controlled by the state or employer — as we see more and more today in the U.S. — it ceases being a trade union; it can no longer represent exclusively the interests of the working class. The same, of course, goes for the bourgeoisie and their employer's association.
Though the governments running Cuba and the U.S. differ from that of Hitler or Mussolini's fascist regime, they share this drive to systematically deny the recognition of different classes and to destroy their different interests. The U.S. government, for example, has worked for years to corrupt trade union organizers; it has done so to prevent workers from building independent parties to channel these same workers to the democratic party that would be more sensitive to their needs and demands. As such, people in this country can vote Republican or Democrat. Namely, the people in this country have no real political choice. On the one hand, trade unions don't have the power (as we saw in 19th-century Britain with the building of a true labor party, for example) nor material basis for building a completely independent worker's party. On the other, the bourgeoisie does have the power and material means for full representation in the U.S. The net effect: there is nothing more undemocratic than the U.S.'s so-called democracy.
It's somewhat ironic that Castro met Carter at Havana's airport named after the great Cuban poet and prose writer, José Marti. José Marti was a sincere democrat who fought to his death in the Cuban/Spanish revolution's battlefields for the spread of democracy everywhere. José Marti believed in his nation's — and others worldwide-right for true independence and for the people's freedom of speech, universal access to education, medical care, and communication. Under a regime that has proved absolutely antithetical to Marti's fight for democracy, he is now the name of an international airport that supplies the Cuban communist mafia with its steady flow of dollars; he has been transformed from a real person into simple idea with no substance: the official national hero-martyr cut off from time and space, now used by Castro's regime to create the spectacular effect of communion between bureaucracy and the god-hero, Marti. What would Marti think if he were to see his Cuba with its dollar-cash tourist zones filled with Benetton boutiques and jineteras hanging off gringo businessmen's arms? What would he think if he were to see his people struggling to survive on fifteen dollars a month and on a pound of beef for six months? What would he think if he were to witness Castro's communist muscle-flexing when he coerced by his "official" count, 1.2 million men and women into leading a "combative march" to show support for his communist regime? (Many were bussed in from factories at the threat of losing their jobs.) I think José Marti would see that today's Cuban government has become a mafia-like bureaucracy that continues to eat away at the positive results of the pre-Castro Cuban revolution of 1958.
However, mixed in with José Marti's cynicism and deep disappointment would be hope. He would hope that the Cuban people would continue defending their right to work, their right to medical attention in all its guises, and their right to universal access to education at all levels, including university. And, notwithstanding Castro's counter-revolutionary policies both in internal matters and foreign affairs, Marti would be hopeful that the Cuban worker's success in 1958 to expropriate the private ownership of the means of production would continue to fuel the aspirations of millions and millions of people in Latin America and elsewhere. That the bourgeoisie has failed to entirely crush the workers' potential to become an independent class through the building of an independent party would continue to give Marti hope. Finally, Marti would believe that the main task today — as it was during his fight for independence from Spain at the turn of the 20th century — would be to continue to build an independent worker's party to ensure the true democratic rights of all citizens worldwide.
Frederick Luis Aldama is a member of the Bad Subjects Production team.